Parham: Ole Miss makes right call with Mike Bianco contract situation
Ole Miss interim athletics director Keith Carter did two things with his recent decision to not roll over baseball coach Mike Bianco’s contract to the four-year maximum Mississippi allows: set some standard of expectations and made an effort to balance out a contract situation that had become inflated relative to results in recent years.
Carter and Bianco met 11 days ago to review the season and program — one that just finished in the super regional round of the NCAA Tournament and with a No. 12 national ranking — and Bianco will manage in 2020 with three years remaining on his coach-friendly contract that was first structured following the 2014 season.
The decision either way could be justified since Ole Miss won a regional for the first time in five seasons and has hosted three of the last four years, showing a positive trajectory for the program. However, for a program built on national expectations, it was another result that fell short of the College World Series — a bar that has been reached once in 19 seasons.
It’s the odd nature of this discussion, as super regional losses more than 10 years ago continue to shape parts of the Bianco conversation based on success in the big moments but have no bearing on the current condition of the program.
Carter threaded the correct needle, in my opinion, with this decision. Most often lack of roll overs are weak and indecisive, serving as preliminary issues prior to the eventual removal of a coach. It’s in-between measure that serves little purpose. The Andy Kennedy roll over hysteria a few years ago started the ball rolling on his dismissal, and it costed Ole Miss players in the process and added to assistant instability.
Following the Rebels’ third-place finish in the 2014 College World Series, then-athletics director Ross Bjork negotiated a new contract with Bianco that held the feature of his incentives from one season adding to his base pay for the next season. On the surface it was a solid contract that allowed raises for achievements and required Ole Miss to hit benchmarks in order for Bianco to get paid among the nationally elite.
While good in theory from a university perspective, it somewhat backfired. Bianco will make just shy of $1.2 million this coming season which puts him in the top-five nationally, per reports and without factoring in other raises and new contracts. Since 2014, he’s received bonuses for SEC West titles, an SEC Tournament title, hosting regionals and winning the 2019 Oxford Regional, among other academic and on-field achievements.
The program is strong, stable and Bianco continues to avoid down years. It’s inarguably a top-15 regular season program. But when Bianco and Bjork came to that 2014 agreement, it wasn’t expected that so many incentives would be met without the most important one — Omaha trips.
Bianco’s salary is alongside Tim Corbin, Dan McDonnell, Jim Schlossnagle, Paul Mainieri and others who have more College World Series pelts on the wall. That’s not a shot at Bianco. He’s done a hell of a job in every other way. But it’s reality and what Carter has to consider as the salary continues to elevate.
Without a complete restructure, the total years on the contract is the only variable that can be easily manipulated. And with Bianco’s buyout a portion of his total salary remaining, a roll over would have increased the buyout by a high six-figures amount, if my math is correct. With so many unknowns with Ole Miss administratively, this measure is fiscally responsible and a direct but not malicious adjustment of perceived expectations.
And each year doesn’t carry the same expectation. Next season may be a bit of a rebuild. Next season may be a success if it ends in the super regional round. But with the assembled talent in recent years Omaha was the expectation. The 2018 season will go down as a major missed opportunity.
Ole Miss is perennially in the top segment of programs in draft picks and recruiting rankings. That’s a credit to Bianco and his staff for overcoming the ridiculous scholarship restrictions that Mississippi and Alabama schools face worse than other league opponents. But it’s also a results-based business so their success with attracting talent removes some of the inherent lowered expectations that could come with the scholarship disadvantage.
This decision doesn’t impact the program negatively. Baseball players are committed to the schools longer than they actually play for them. This one contract year won’t affect recruiting. And Ole Miss put both Carl Lafferty and Mike Clement (who turned down a job at Texas A&M) on two-year contracts — a sign of security in assistant coach circles.
Ole Miss has put more than $50 million in Swayze Field renovations since 2009, and season ticket numbers will be around 7,000 again in 2020. Monetarily all sides are doing their part.
This is the end of a strange few months for the program. A good portion of the season was being played amid strong rumblings about Bianco’s immediate job security. Those continued — and even strengthened — until Bjork left for Texas A&M in late May. Then Ole Miss rebounded from six straight losses to finish second in the SEC Tournament, win a regional and finish one win short of the College World Series.
The circumstances show the fickle nature of high-level athletics. One more win and Bianco would be at four years on his contract. Instead nine innings have everything here, as difficult decisions were required.
There wasn’t a wrong decision, however. Both were justified. After next season, whether it’s Carter or some other athletics director, there will be another evaluation and another decision. This also lessens the burden if it’s someone else
In the meantime there’s fiscal relief in a way and a bit of a map to what’s required for the program. And it’s more than regular season consistency.